- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 5, 2007

I recently watched workers swarm over a beach neighbor’s cottage, putting on new siding, repairing and rebuilding decks. It was obvious from their chatter that few, if any, spoke English. When I asked the contractor how many he thought were legal, he looked at me warily and said, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Then he added, “Without them, I wouldn’t have a company.”

Spanish-speaking undocumented workers have become the backbone of American small business. But their uncertain status and the increasing pressure to send as many packing as possible is causing a lot of sleepless nights for those whose businesses so heavily depend on them. Lately there has been a noticeable decline in those crowds of men who gather every morning outside the local convenience store hoping to find a day job. If you needed a hard worker for tasks no one else seemed to want, you could always find him there that is, until federal intervention forced him to seek a lower profile.

What more evidence is needed to prove Congress is a broken institution than its failure to deal with the worsening immigration situation? There seems to be no middle ground between the hard-liners on the right who would wall off our southern border, and probably the northern one too, and those on the left who fail to realize the debilitating impact of uncontrolled access.

So in the absence of action, tens of thousands in this land where “huddled masses” once found sanctuary and opportunity are now being swept up and sent back to the oppressive conditions they tried so hard to escape, splitting mothers and fathers and leaving children born here to face an uncertain future. It is a sad commentary on a nation built by immigrants.

Even more disturbing is the new atmosphere of fear created by a policy of removal that shows little compassion or coherence. For probably the first time since the British controlled this country, protests have been curtailed by the perceived threat of identification and reprisal. The May Day marches so dramatic a year ago fell dramatically short in numbers this time. Many who participated in 2006 have either been expelled or gone to ground to escape detection.

Federal agents have removed nearly 225,000 illegal immigrants over the last year as pressure has mounted to toughen enforcement. That’s a 20 percent increase over the previous year. While that seems not a lot considering there are an estimated 12 million illegal aliens, the effect has been significant.

Many sent home had been in this country for years. While authorities contend they concentrate on rounding up fugitives with criminal records and those completing prison sentences, the raids, say recent news reports, have caught up many with no criminal background.

It is clear that once again nothing will be done to solve the situation at least not during the current Congress as lawmakers posture for the presidential campaign. Although President Bush has proposed a broad plan that combines some form of amnesty for those who have lived productively albeit illegally here for years and a visiting-worker policy for more recent arrivals, hard-liners, many of them Republicans, have failed to respond, prompting one wag to observe that immigration is like the weather in that everyone complains about it but no one does anything.

Political observers have predicted immigration and its impact on community economics would be the major domestic issue in the presidential campaign, and nearly every candidate for the nomination of both parties has at least an opinion on how to solve the situation.

So far, however, that hasn’t translated into a real effort in Congress. Why? The answer seems obvious. Although lawmakers don’t want to be on the side of those considered lawbreakers, wholesale deportation would be economically devastating. Loss of the immigrant work force, either through expulsion or fear of government reprisal, already has hurt many businesses.

There has to be a solution beyond impractical physical barriers. (How many illegal immigrants will it take to build them?) The president’s proposals are sensible and workable if refined a bit. Hard-line opponents of any but the most radical solutions should understand that theirs is simply a finger in the dike. At the same time, those who would throw open the portals or declare total amnesty are just as foolish.

Come on, Congress. Work this out. That’s what you were hired to do.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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